Elana James, known around Austin, Texas, and beyond as the fiddler and singer in Hot Club of Cowtown, is stepping out with Black Beauty. An engaging mix of original tunes and well-curated covers, the eclectic solo project arrives Feb. 24.
The musical diversity on the album comes naturally. James is a Kansas native who earned a degree in comparative religion in New York City and studied music in India. When she’s not on tour, she works as a horse wrangler in Montana. So, much like her creative impulses, she’s hard to pin down. Nonetheless, she graciously fielded a few questions by email about her new project.
Here’s the CMT Edge premiere of “Who Loves You More,” a moody number about an infatuation with the moon. Read our Q&A with James below the player.
CMT Edge: What was on your mind when you were writing “Who Loves You More”?
James: It was inspired by someone I know who had this really intimate relationship with the moon. Almost as if the moon was a presence in his life in this very pointed, very personal way. (I have been involved with more than one person like that, come to think of it!) And I got to thinking that really his primary relationship maybe really was with the moon — that charismatic, ageless presence who would always be there for him, and I would always be second to that.
Plus, who can compete with the moon? I started considering the moon as this jealous lover, a sexy, all-powerful goddess who rules all things. Also, I love the song “I’ll Be Seeing You,” and so many old songs where the moon is the romantic signifier, they look at it and think of each other. “Who Loves You More” is more a twist on that — looking at your lover but seeing the moon!
Your vocal almost sounds like seduction or danger is in the cards. And the fiddle is ominous, too. What was the studio vibe like when you recorded it?
Mark Hallman (who helped produce the record and recorded and engineered the whole thing in his amazing, inimitable style) made me drink a LOT of whiskey first! He dimmed the lights and made me speak/sing it in as kind of slow and mysterious/mesmerizing way as possible. That doesn’t come naturally to me because I tend to be literal and also somewhat hyper with tempos (thus the whiskey!).
For a long time I thought this track was really strange or a put-on, or I wasn’t sure about having put on a kind of persona to sing it, but now when I hear it I think, oh yes, that’s also totally me — very much my own sound. No one is doing that kind of thing that I know of: mysterious violin + Marlene Dietrich vocals.
The fiddle part came first. There’s also viola on there. I love these kinds of gypsy-esque songs where there is a creepy underpinning that just pulls you along. Who knows what the song is really about — it can be about something different for anyone who listens. But that ominous fiddle and viola just moving insidiously in and out of the background are to me what open it up to darkness and imagination.
What is your favorite part of going over to the dark side on narratives like this?
I guess that I am known for sunny songs, more fiddle-driven music, happy-sounding songs that on second thought are maybe not quite so happy. I like the idea of doing this different thing for me — moody, almost like a character. I love other artists who can morph their persona from song to song, but have never really tried it myself.
Plus, no matter how dark you think something is, people can not only handle it, they seem to identify with it even more. I know that’s true for me. When you think something is just too dark and personal, where the soul is just going to tear open or you’re going to embarrass yourself — that’s the stuff I love the most as a listener.